Here's a recent question: "Can a rabies virus get into the body if you pick up a dead animal the roadway and have a cut on your hand? I understand the animal has to carry the rabies virus but sometimes we don't know what killed the animal. It may be infected and didn't use due diligence or perhaps it just wasn't fast enough. After reading stories here I'm less likely to remove a dead animal. Sometimes they are so juicy, the fluids are flung about and you may get some on your clothes or skin and not know it. How likely is contracting rabies from fluids in a cut? The reason I ask is when I was younger I picked up a dead squirrel with my bare hands and then noticed I had cuts on my hands. I went to a doctor who looked at me like I was crazy but I had that uneasy feeling because I knew rabies is almost always fatal. Of course, I didn't get it but when I watch other people remove dead animals from roadways I cringe. I can't even think about eating roadkill or skinning it for the fur but that's just me."
Good question. You've covered most of the important aspects of risk, which are pretty minimal:
- Animal has to be infected
- Live rabies virus needs to be present
- Rabies virus needs to get into a person's body (not just on it)
Let's look at these individually.
Animal needs to be infected
- You never know whether this is a concern when you find a dead animal. Once it's dead, you can't tell if it's acting strange. In general, it's safest to assume that all such animals are infectious until proven otherwise.
Live rabies virus needs to be present
- I haven't come across good information about how long rabies virus can survive in a dead body outdoors. It probably varies greatly between different situations, particularly depending on the temperature of the body. For very fresh roadkill, there's certainly a possibility that live virus is still present (if the animal had rabies).
Rabies virus needs to get into a person's body (not just on it)
- Rabies cannot be transmitted through intact skin. Rabies infection is transmitted mainly through bites, cuts and scrapes. Saliva or nervous system (e.g. brain) tissue are infectious. Blood, urine and feces are not.
- If you have contact with a dead animal, avoid any direct contact with your skin, and avoid any activities that could result in splashing of fluids. Transmission of rabies from infected fluids is possible if it comes in contact with broken skin or mucous membranes like the eyes or mouth.
- If intact skin has been contaminated with fluid, wash it thoroughly with soap and water, but don't panic - it's really of minimal concern.
- If your clothes have been contaminated with fluid, take them off right away if possible. If that's not practical (or legal), take them off as soon as you get home. Put them in the laundry immediately and wash your hands.
- If open sores or other broken skin has been contaminated, wash the area thoroughly with copious amounts of soap and water under moderate pressure. Disinfectants can be used to help clean the wound, but there's no consensus about whether that's necessary - these chemicals can be painful to use and hard on tissue, and the flushing action of the water probably does the most to remove the virus from the area. You should go to a physician, who will get in touch with public health personnel to determine if there is any reason for post-exposure treatment. If the animal's body is available to test, that's useful. If the brain has decayed too much to be tested properly, it's questionable whether live rabies virus would still be present even if the animal had rabies. Public health personnel will decide whether they think there is any risk.
Bottom line: the risk of contracting rabies from roadkill is very low. Roadkill contact has never, to my knowledge, been identified as a source of infection. Rabies transmission from dead animals has been documented, however, such as a couple cases of rabies from people preparing dead animals for food.
So, if you see a dead animal by the road, leave it alone. If you are going (for some reason) to touch it, first make sure it's really dead. An injured animal might be much more likely to bite. If it's really dead and you are just trying to move it off the road, use a stick, shovel or something else that doesn't involve you having direct contact with the animal. Other than that, I'm not sure why anyone would want to touch roadkill.